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Depression Health Center

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Postpartum Depression: More Common Than You Know

New mothers with postpartum depression can feel very alone. But at least 20% of new mothers experience it. Here's how to cope.

Postpartum Depression vs. Postpartum Psychosis

What if you think you're going to hurt your baby? Christina Garman, 33, of Euclid, Ohio, says she still can't shake a memory from when her daughter Molly was a baby. She was sitting on her bed breastfeeding, but even as she nursed, Molly was still crying. A frustrated, exhausted Garman, who had struggled with post-delivery abdominal pain and difficulty nursing, had reached her limit.

"All I could see myself doing was throwing her across the room," she recalls, the horror of the moment still in her voice. "Or shake her. I would never do that, but for some reason those thoughts kept coming into my head. I thought, 'Who are you, and what have you done with your brain?'"

Garman's story might remind you of Andrea Yates, the Texas mother who drowned her five children in the bathtub. But Yates had postpartum psychosis, a very different and more rare condition that should not be confused with postpartum depression. It is not an extreme form of postpartum depression but a separate condition in which a new mother has a genuine psychotic breakdown and could harm her children. Garman was eventually diagnosed with postpartum depression obsessive-compulsive disorder.

About one in every 1,000 new mothers develops postpartum psychosis, compared to the one in five who goes through other perinatal mood disorders. It comes on "very shortly after delivery, within the first 72 hours to the first couple of weeks," says Gunyon Meyer. "Often the first sign is that the mother is speeded up, not sleeping, and yet she feels great. Then she'll be having these unusual thoughts about harming the baby or 'protecting' the baby from evil by harming him or her. Sometimes these thoughts will wax and wane a little, so she thinks it's going away and doesn't tell anyone until she has a true psychotic break."

Both women with postpartum depression and women with postpartum psychosis have thoughts about hurting the baby, but the difference is that women with postpartum depression, like Garman, are horrified by these thoughts, while women with postpartum psychosis think they're normal. With postpartum depression, "acute depression and anxiety develop in ways that make women feel as if they're going mad," Kleiman says. "They don't realize that having these thoughts doesn't mean they're going to act on them. The thoughts are horrible and scary, but the good news is that they do scare you. Women with postpartum depression don't hurt their children. In fact, they'll go to extreme lengths to protect their children, even hurting themselves to avoid harming their child."

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